Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ellen Savage (1912–1985)

by Fran de Groen

This article was published:

Ellen Savage (1912-1985), army nurse and hospital matron, was born on 17 October 1912 at Quirindi, New South Wales, third daughter of Russian-born Henry Savage, tailor, and his New South Wales-born wife Sarah Ann, née Mulheron. After a childhood in Quirindi, Ellen trained as a nurse at Newcastle Hospital, graduating in 1934. She then studied obstetrics at the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, Sydney, and mothercraft at Tresillian Mothercraft Training School, Petersham, before working at the Baby Health Centre, Tamworth.

Joining the Australian Army Nursing Service on 24 May 1941, Savage was appointed to the 113th Australian General Hospital, Concord, Sydney. Blue-eyed, fair-complexioned and 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, she transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 18 November and served in the Middle East in the hospital ship Oranje. She was promoted to sister on 25 May 1942 and commissioned as a lieutenant in the following March.

On 12 May 1943 Savage was one of twelve nurses who sailed in the hospital ship Centaur bound for Port Moresby to recover wounded military personnel. Two days after leaving Sydney the vessel was sunk off Moreton Island, Queensland, by a Japanese torpedo. A strong swimmer, Savage was the only nurse to survive. Despite suffering severe bruising, a fractured nose, burst ear drums, a broken palate and fractured ribs, she managed to join other survivors on a makeshift raft. Concealing her own injuries, she assisted the others, many of whom were severely burned. She raised their morale with group prayer and recitation of the rosary, and supervised the rationing of their scanty water and food supplies. Thirty-four hours later they were rescued by the destroyer, USS Mugford. In 1944, for ‘conspicuous service and high courage’, she became the second Australian woman to be awarded the George Medal.

Savage resumed nursing at the AGH on 14 August 1943 and served there until demobilised on 8 March 1946. Appointed senior sister at (Royal) Newcastle Hospital, she was respected and somewhat feared for her insistence on high standards of discipline and knowledge. In 1947 she won a Florence Nightingale memorial scholarship for postgraduate study in England, where she gained a diploma in nursing administration from the Royal College of Nursing. Back at Newcastle she was unexpectedly passed over for the post of director of nursing by the medical superintendent, Dr Christian McCaffrey, because she was ‘entrenched in the ‘‘old school mode” wanting to maintain subservience and military discipline’. She was matron of the hospital’s chest unit at Rankin Park from 1950 until ill health forced her resignation in 1967, when she moved to Gordon, Sydney.

A founding member (1949), council-member (1952-59) and president (1957-58) of the College of Nursing, Australia, Miss Savage was actively involved in fund-raising that helped to establish Centaur House, Brisbane, an educational and social centre for nurses. After attending an Anzac Day reunion on 25 April 1985 she collapsed outside Sydney Hospital. She died that day and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (1968)
  • R. Goodman, Our War Nurses (1988)
  • S. Marsden, The Royal: A Castle Grand, A Purpose Noble (2005)
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 May 1943, p 9
  • B883, item NX76584 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Royal Newcastle Hospital and Royal Newcastle Hospital Nurses’ Assn papers (University of Newcastle Archives).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Fran de Groen, 'Savage, Ellen (1912–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ellen Savage, 1943

Ellen Savage, 1943

Australian War Memorial, 044427

Life Summary [details]


17 October, 1912
Quirindi, New South Wales, Australia


25 April, 1985 (aged 72)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Military Service
Key Organisations